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Aunt dtUa 

A TALE OF OLD BARDSTOWN 



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AUNT CILLA 



Because the story of Aunt Cilia 
is not fiction but a beautiful fact, 
I dedicate its telling to her memory 
with the hope that it will prove 
helpful to many of her race and 
mine. 



Bardstown, Kentucky 
September, 1921. 




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The Old Howell Home. 

Drawing by F. L. Morgan. 



Aunt Cilia 



A Tale of Old Bardstown 



All the older people in Bardstown and many of 
the middle-aged remember the old Howell home. 

It was not a conspicuous place, but it was un- 
usual. It stood slightly back from one of the 
principal streets, a rather long-fronted frame 
building, its original white, weather-toned to a 
fine, soft gray, and it had an odd inset porch 
across it partly enclosing a stairway leading to 
the floor above. 

There was a wide ribbon of grass between it 
and the street; a smoke tree stood near the gate, 
old rose bushes welcomed with outstretched arms 
the blooming seasons, and a purple magnolia 
tree in the spring spread a misty veil of color 
above the pavement leading to the porch. The 
pavement itself was sunken in spots, and grass 
grew in little wistful outcroppings between its 
unresponsive bricks. 

In the early 70's three women occupied the 
house — Mrs. Howell, her grand-daughter, Miss 
Mattie, and Aunt Cilia, the negro maid. Mrs. 
Howell was advanced in years and never left the 
place; for the most part, as she is now remembered, 
she sat in her own front room below stairs, and 
occupied herself with her quilt pieces or other 
7 



light handiwork by the window looking out on the 
magnolia tree and beyond to the street with its 
cheerful, moving life. 

Miss Mattie, who taught, was the spirited 
member of the family, but, having threaded many 
needles to employ her grandmother's busy fingers 
during her own absence, she left the house daily 
soon after breakfast, and when she had closed 
the gate, the place seemed to settle down into a 
reminiscent quiet befitting the old landmark that 
it was. 

It was after the gate had closed behind Miss 
Mattie's issuing feet that Aunt Cilia emerged, 
so to speak, from obscurity and came into her own. 
Busied about her "01' Miss" as she always called 
Mrs. Howell, or in the care of the house, or look- 
ing after the roses that were her delight, and sing- 
ing fitfully in the fervid fashion of the negro, she 
furnished the place a presence, unobtrusive but 
unique. 

Past middle age, a woman of average height, 
rather stout in build, she united in her appearance 
and evinced in her mental make-up the character- 
istics of both the Negro and Indian races. Of 
a color lighter than the African, though not pre- 
cisely that of the Red man, she possessed wavy, 
not kinky, hair, a straight nose and eyes whose 
flash caused many an offender to retreat before 
them. It was a surmise rather than a certainty 
that Aunt Cilia's grandmother was an Indian 
8 



squaw, but in that surmise she herself placed 
implicit confidence. 

From early childhood she had been a part of 
the Howell household ; she could remember noth- 
ing previous to that, and her devotion to her 
mistress was an absorbing passion. 

Mrs. Howell, being a Presbyterian of the old 
time, positive type, Cilia had been taught the 
principles of that faith with scrupulous regard, 
and had united with the church of which her 
mistress was a member. Across the inner front 
of the church was a gallery reached by stairs 
from the vestibule, and in this gallery space was 
reserved for the few negro members of the con- 
gregation. Here, therefore, Cilia sat and listened 
from time to time to the Word as it was preached 
by ministers of no mean reputation, and it was a 
matter of pride with her that she shared a place 
in the church with her mistress and had a part 
in the services dear to her pious heart. 

Why Cilia had never married had been a matter 
of speculation many a time with those who knew 
the capability and character of the woman. That 
she had not lacked opportunity, at least a few 
felt sure; probably a smaller number knew that 
her reason was the devotion she felt for Mrs. 
Howell, that could contemplate no separation 
from her of long duration. While she was a 
young woman a negro by the name of Stephen 
Thomas had offered her his hand and heart in 

9 



due form, but Cilia's answer had been decisive 
and sustained: "No, sir," that answer ran, "I 
ain't goin' to leave my Mist's fer nobody. 11 In 
spite of the accent on the Sir, Stephen waited, 
hoping, but Cilia held to her position. 

Years came and went; the young roses grew 
old and stocky and rugged; the purple magnolia 
spread itself; the master of the house, Col. 
Howell, died and the young mistresses were 
married and moved to distant States, but Aunt 
Cilia, as she now came to be generally called, 
clung as tenaciously as in former days to the 
woman she not only served but loved. 

It was not till she herself had become a woman 
long past middle age that her argument against 
Stephen's persuasions became surmountable. 

When Mrs. Howell, after a brief illness, died 
and it was apparent that the house would be for 
at least a time deserted, Aunt Cilia realized the 
loneliness she had long dreaded, and a sort of 
terror seized her. Where, when this home closed, 
would she find another? Employment she could 
find readily, but where the confidence and the 
affection that she now must surely miss? 

The waiting Stephen offered a prompt solution ; 
he renewed his long-ago rejected suit and this 
time Cilia acquiesced — with one unique reserva- 
tion: she positively refused to give up the name 
of Howell. 

"Stephen," she said, "I ain't goin' to change 

10 



my name to no Thomas. I knew a nigger once 
by the name er Thomas that went to the Pener- 
tench'ry, an' I ain't goin' to have nobody mixin' 
me up with him. I been Cilia Howell all my 
life, an' Cilia Howell I jis got to stay. You kin 
take me and my name, or you can leave my name 
an' me with it, but you can't take it away from 
me, " and Stephen, having gained his chief point, 
was so inclined to leniency that he took her, name 
and all, being thenceforward known as Stephen 
Howell, an arrangement apparently satisfactory 
to both. 

Soon after the death of Mrs. Howell the old 
home was purchased by Mr, William Carothers, 
one of the leading business men of the town who 
shortly moved into it with his family, consisting 
of his wife and a young son and daughter. Mrs. 
Carothers needed a responsible woman to help 
her care for the children, and naturally Aunt 
Cilia, so identified with the place, was suggested 
as a suitable person. 

Mr. Carothers himself sought her out and talked 
the matter over with her, and the result was 
that again the doors of her old home opened to 
receive her. So that, in no great time after, she, 
with her faithful Stephen, was there re-established. 

Whether the matrimonial career of Aunt Cilia 
was destined to be tranquil, or tempestuous, there 
was scarce time for her friends to speculate upon, 
for several years later Uncle Stephen died, and 

11 



Aunt Cilia walked thenceforth the single path 
of widowhood. If, however, she had evinced 
small enthusiasm over marriage — -she never had 
declared any great affection for Stephen — there 
was no doubt in any mind of her respect for him 
and there was no lack of its evidence in her con- 
duct. 

His funeral was conducted with dignity in the 
church of which he was, with her, a member, 
and he was accorded every appropriate rite. At 
the head of Stephen's coffin stood the Carothers 
children, whose singing was possibly the most 
striking feature of the service; it was doubtless 
the most grateful and comforting part of it to 
Aunt Cilia herself, as from their lips there issued 
in soft childish tones the music and the words 
peculiarly dear to her. 

"O, how I love Jesus, 
O, how I love Jesus, 
O, how I love Jesus, 
Because He first loved me." 

A spacious lot in the town cemetery had been 
purchased with a considerable portion of the two 
hundred dollars left Aunt Cilia by the will of 
Mrs. Howell. In this lot Uncle Stephen was 
buried and in due time a stone was set there 
bearing these simple words: 

"Stephen Howell, 

Died March 25, 1876, 

Aged about 74 years. 

Erected by 

Priscilla Howell." 

12 



Aunt Cilia wished to leave no uncertainty in 
any mind that it was she and none other who had 
erected Stephen's monument. As the years went 
by one after another of her negro friends making 
suitable request of her was granted the privilege 
of laying away a relative in this lot ; it was looked 
upon as a coverted spot and its capacity was used 
to the limit. This lot, this stone of memorial 
and a black alpaca dress, which she kept till the 
day of her death, about exhausted Aunt Cilia's 
legacy, but they were purchases that gave her 
enduring satisfaction. 

Trees long past their maturity, even in ad- 
vancing age and apparently not far from their 
extreme limit of life, are sometimes known to 
blossom with their younger neighbors and yield 
an unusual fruitage. An analagous case was 
that of Aunt Cilia. Transplanted at an age when 
activity is generally succeeded by inertia, this 
woman, now elderly, re-established in her old 
home, but with new surroundings, entered upon 
a fresh career of vitality and usefulness. If, 
in the dusks of evening and in the lonely night 
hours the spirits of the departed kept spectral 
company with hers, she gave no sign when the 
day's return brought back the day's activities, 
but with surprising adaptability adjusted her- 
self to the unwonted claims now pressing upon 
her; and especially did she give a whole-hearted 
service to the children who were her chief care 

and her unfailing delight. 
13 



When, later, other babies appeared in the 
family, the old heart of Aunt Cilia opened out 
the wider and she held out willing hands to the 
little forms committed to her arms. And how 
she grew to love them and how in turn they looked 
to her with trustful eyes that were never disap- 
pointed is part of history — her history and theirs. 

For nearly ten years the family life, of which 
she had now become thoroughly a part, moved 
on in comparative tranquility. To a certain 
extent Aunt Cilia transferred the attachment she 
had manifested for her " 01' Miss " to her younger 
employer, and this attachment became and re- 
mained a mutual one. Mrs. Carothers had im- 
plicit confidence in Aunt Cilia's faithfulness, and 
to the children she was a reservoir of entertain- 
ment as well as a refuge in need, so that her place 
became one of adviser and arbiter as well as 
attendant and servitor. Respect for her was in- 
culcated, but affection for her was spontaneous 
and both were abiding. 

But a slowly deepening shadow was settling 
over the home and Aunt Cilia's wise old eyes 
were filling with sympathetic apprehension. Mrs. 
Carothers was failing in health, more and more 
depending on the valiant old heart of Aunt Cilia 
for service, and as they looked into each other's 
faces, though little was said by either, the truth 
was recognized by both. 

In the last frail, fading days, however, the 

14 



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Little Catherine. 



mother heart cried out irrepressibly, and both 
were moved to adequate speech. They were 
together alone save for Catherine, bewitching 
in her two-year-old winsomeness, and the moth- 
er's eyes were upon her yet full of distress; Aunt 
Cilia spoke : 

"Miss Sue," she said, "I know you'se grievin' 
'bout somp'in — what's on your mind?" And the 
mother cried out, "My baby! Aunt Cilia, my 
baby! Who will take care of her?" 

It was then that Aunt Cilia rose to new heights. 
"I will, Miss Sue," she said, "7 will! Ain't 
I been takin' keer er her ever since she wuz bo'n? 
An' ain't I goin' to look after her long as I live? 
Ain't she my baby, too?" 

"0, Aunt Cilia, ' ' the mother begged. * ' Live ! 
You must live, and take care of her till she is 
grown, won't you?" 

And Aunt Cilia replied with the solemnity of 
an oath, "I'll stick by her till death parts us, 
Miss Sue." Then the mother said gently, put- 
ting the tiny Catherine into the arms held out 
for her, "There, Aunt Cilia, take your baby." 

Years after, as Aunt Cilia told the little girl 
of that scene, she said, "An' right there I took 
your little white han' in my big ol' brown paw 
and axed the Lord to let me live till you got to 
be eighteen." 

And the mother, comforted with the promise, 
found a new peace that a few days later merged 

15 



into the peace that passeth all understanding. 
When the end was nearly come, she called the 
older children about her and gave them her last 
injunctions, obedience to Aunt Cilia being one 
of them, and of her she said, "She will always be 
your good friend. " And no one ever better ful- 
filled a prophecy. 

Vigilance and affection were inseparably united 
thenceforth in the care given her young charges 
by this woman now venerable. No lynx was 
ever more watchful, no mother-love more un- 
tiring. To her babies, as she called them, she 
was tenderness itself. Sleeping in the room with 
them, no frightened wail from one of them ever 
failed to rouse her, and getting up, she would 
sit beside the cowering little soul, its hand in 
hers, till peace came back in sleep. 

Nothing so roused her wrath as a slighting 
remark, or one she so construed, to one of her 
children ; and the boys of the neighborhood knew 
full well when, after exciting her ire, it were safer 
to retire than to further offend her. 

As the children advanced in years the respect 
suitable to their ages she accorded them volun- 
tarily. When they reached the age of fifteen, 
they were addressed as "Mr." Bob, and "Miss" 
Ella, and to their surprised queries as to the un- 
wonted dignity Aunt Cilia replied with prompt 
decision : 

"You're growin' up now, an' I'm goin' to 

16 



show these other niggers 'round here what's 
proper. I ain't goin* to have them treatin' you 
with disrespee', " and she was punctilious to the 
last. 

Birthdays she always remembered and cele- 
brated in some way. The plum trees in the side 
yard spread a white canopy in spring and a 
green one later on whose shade afforded a favorite 
spot for such festivities; and there would be cake 
and fun, the former at times provided out of her 
own slender means. How she would have liked 
to see them making merry in some such fashion 
every day ! 

They are laughing yet — her children — and tell- 
ing their children of times when they and the 
little people from neighboring homes would con- 
gregate occasionally in a large upper room and 
sit in a charmed silence about Aunt Cilia while 
she spun — largely from her own imagination — 
marvellous tales that held them spellbound; and 
in the hand of each rapt listener appeared, sole 
and sufficient refreshment, young onions from 
their own garden! What was scent or taste 
compared with the thrills evoked by this story 
wizard? The wand was hers and they were for 
that hour a charmed circle docile to her mood. 

Could she have had her way the children would 
have fared sumptuously and disported themselves 
in fine apparel every day; as the modest means 
of the home denied such luxury, Aunt Cilia did 

17 



her best to keep them content with their lot, 
whatever that was, but sometimes she found it 
impossible to repress her own longings for their 
enjoyments, and then she would launch out into 
some special treat that she herself paid for; 
indeed this tendency so threatened to become a 
habit that Mr. Carothers had to remonstrate very 
firmly with her on the subject. 

Devotion of this kind is usually intolerant of 
discipline. In the Carothers family obedience was 
inculcated from infancy and principles were 
taught that were matters of daily acceptance; 
usually Aunt Cilia was thoroughly awake to the 
importance of training the children and she had 
great respect for the head of the house, but woe to 
any exercise of authority that she did not recog- 
nize as legitimate — and there are several remem- 
bered occasions when even the father's discipline 
evoked a remonstrance not less pronounced be- 
cause expressed in few words or in the flash of her 
indignant eyes. The baby, Catherine, was nat- 
urally the one on whom her tenderness was most 
intensely concentrated, and when the child, half- 
grown, had typhoid fever and was so ill that 
trained nurses had to displace Aunt Cilia's never 
wearying care, those nurses told the family that 
no matter how early in the morning they might 
undo the outer door of the room in which the 
sufferer lay, Aunt Cilia would be crouching there 
and her eager question was always the same: 
"How is my baby?" 

18 



Years after the death of Mrs. Howell one of her 
grandsons came to Bardstown delegated by his 
family to bring Aunt Cilia back with him to a 
Western city to make her home for the remainder 
of her days. 

Aunt Cilia listened to the proffer, but there was 
no hesitation in her decision. She had cast her 
lot with the Carothers family, the children were 
hers in all save blood, and she loved them with 
a loyalty that anticipated no breaking till that 
of the final relinquishment, 

The years came and went — for the children 
they meant growth, development, outlook into a 
widening horizon. For her they brought a slower 
and more uneven step, a shorter breath, a form 
more bowed, and an outlook presenting no rosier 
earthly future. Now and then, struggle against 
it as she might, acute attacks of sickness came 
and the end seemed almost in sight. At these 
times, however, the thing that seemed to distress 
her most was the fright and the pain she gave 
the children — now, indeed, children only to her. 
To see her who had been their refuge and tower 
of comfort prostrated and in danger was to them 
a distracting grief, and one they voiced in piti- 
ful wails, imploring her not to leave them. After 
such scenes she would say, "I jis hope when I 
die I'll be all by myself. I don't want to see 
you all a-cryin' and hollerin' aroun' me like that. " 

Did some ministering angel, listening, make 

note of the wish, and would it find fulfillment? 
19 



As her infirmities increased and it became more 
and more difficult for her to climb to her upstairs 
room, Mr. Carothers had a room in the yard 
made ready for her, where she could enter into 
the enjoyment of the outer world without undue 
exertion and where her friends and the family 
had easy access to her. 

There, after a time, compelling weakness put 

her to bed and an elderly negro woman, Aunt 

Clarissy, was engaged to stay with and look after 

her. One day as Aunt Clarissy stood at the 

window looking out on the yard and silent, Aunt 

Cilia began to sing. It was a crooning little 

song: 

" O, how I love Jesus, 
O, how I love Jesus, 
0, how I love Jesus, 
Because He first loved me." 

How often she had rocked the babies to sleep 
with it, holding them close clasped to the heart 
that had known no baby love but theirs! The 
words came from lips that trembled a little, 

"0— how— I— love— " 
The sound trailed off and stopped. "Go on, 
Cilia," Aunt Clarissy encouraged, "Go on, I'm 
listeninV but the song had ended and the 
singer, brave, patient, tender soul, had joined 
the company of those who, having been faithful 
unto death, are promised a crown of life and songs 
of victory. 

20 



And her release had come on the day that 
Catherine became eighteen. Was it a happening 
or an answered prayer? 

No sincerer affection ever voiced itself than did 
that of the Carothers family for the woman who 
had mothered them for so many years. Father 
and son, summoned hastily from their business, 
stood by the bed on which her still form lay, 
and were no less manly for the tears that shone on 
their faces, The eldest daughter, now teaching 
twenty miles away, was telephoned to and left 
her school to come home to Aunt Cilia for the 
last time. The sisters and an intimate friend 
made with loving hands the garments for her 
long repose. 

In the old Presbyterian Church not far away 
a congregation that packed the house gathered 
to pay respect to her memory. Music and flowers 
and appropriate speech were all there, and the 
white and the negro races gave equal ear and equal 
tribute. 

The Bardstown Cemetery spreads its peaceful 
acres out behind a row of cedars that shield it 
from the public highway. On its further edge 
was the lot in which the dust of Uncle Stephen 
had lain for many years. The sun in its shining 
knew no difference between that lot and any other, 
and over them all its balm was being poured. 
But the little group that followed Aunt Cilia to 
her resting place paused near the main entrance 

21 



to the cemetery and there in the Carothers lot 
she was laid away. Not even death was to 
divide her from those to whom she had given 
for twenty-four years a mother-love service. 
"When I die, " she had said to them, "I want to 
be buried there — at the feet of my babies." 
But their love for her planned otherwise and 
better, for she was placed where, joined since by 
one and another of the family, she lies among 
them side by side. \ 

Louise J. Speed.